Egypt: Hieroglyphics and its Decipherment, A Feature Tour Egypt Story

Hieroglyphics and Their Decipherment

By Marie Parsons

Step into an Egyptian Exhibit at your favorite museum, or study a photograph of a coffin in a good book. Walk through a temple or tomb in Egypt itself and look at the walls and doorways. Chances are you will see hieroglyphics, the Greek words for sacred writings, what the Egyptians called medu netjer or divine words.

Examples of passages and groupings of hieroglyphics that may already be familiar to us are the hetep di nisu or "an offering which the king gives," most commonly seen on coffins and funerary texts, and in the cartouches bearing the names of the Kings. We may have already begun to recognize individual and increasingly familiar glyphs. Look at the accompanying photo of part of the beautiful Tomb of Nefertari, the favorite wife of Rameses II. How many hieroglyphs can you make out? Can you translate any of the signs? What was said here? To understand a people, understand their language as closely as possible.

Hieroglyphs developed from pictorial representations of flora, fauna, buildings, people and objects of daily use that were familiar to the people. Later developed the need to convey a spoken language, words or sentences, in a written form, and the pictographs then came to have specific meanings, and were used to convey a distinctive language. The Egyptians thus used a system that combined phonograms, that is, sound-signs that spelt out the word in an alphabetic system, and ideograms, sense-signs that were added to the spelled-out word to depict its meaning, and this language had its own syntax, grammar and vocabulary.

Hieroglyphs were primarily used for religious and formal secular purposes. Early in the historical period, a simpler cursive script was developed, in which each character was a simplified version of a hieroglyph. This script is today known as hieratic and was widely used until about 800 BCE for business, literary and religious texts. By about 700 BCE another script today called demotic had evolved from the hieratic. Business, legal and literary inscriptions were written in demotic.

The spread of Christianity in Egypt and the consequent development of the Coptic script sounded the death-knell for the medu netjer, which had been primarily used for official documents in both government and temple administration. By the end of the fifth century ACE, knowledge of how to read and write the old scripts was extinct. The hieroglyphs were fully surrendered to the larger myth of ancient Egypt, the land of strange customs ad esoteric wisdom nurtured in belief by classical writers.

The belief that the hieroglyphs were somehow symbolic and imbued with secret meaning, rather than simply being a popular script, had become well-rooted before Diodorus Siculus visited Egypt in the first centiry BCE. He wrote: "their writing does not express the intended concept by means of syllables joined to one another, but by means of the significance of the objects which have been copied, and by its figurative meaning which has been impressed upon the memory by practice." The influential philosopher Plotinus writing in the third century said the hieroglyphs were nothing less than Platonic ideas in visual form, "each picturea kind of understanding and wisdom" revealing to the initiated true knowledge as to the essence and substance of things.

Such inaccuracies were hard to shake. The very scientific and pragmatically-minded Europe wanted to hold on to the thought that perhaps there were mysteries in the world if an initiate could just find the key. Hieroglyphics were a mystery all right, but not mysterious or mystical. And the key was found in the 18th and 19th centuries of the Common Era.

In the seventeenth century ACE the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher made a good beginning when he recognized the linguistic derivation of Coptic from the language of the hieroglyphics, though he took this to be a symbolic writing. A linguist of great ability, Kirchers translations of hieroglyphics were based entirely on these preconceived notions as to their symbolic functioning. Kircher does however hold an honored place in Egyptological circles, since he authored the first Coptic grammar and vocabulary. Knowledge of Coptic, the spoken and written language of the Egyptian people at the time the Rosetta Stone was discovered, would prove to be a vital element in eventually deciphering the hieroglyphs. The ancient Egyptian language could not have been understood without knowledge of Coptic, which was written using Greek letters and a few signs derived from demotic, and was used in translations of the Bible, liturgies and other writings of Christianity.

Then 1785 ACE Jean Barthelemy suggested that the cartouches surrounding some hieroglyphs contained divine and royal names.

In July of 1799, Napoleons French army was encamped in the Delta region of Egypt, near the branch of the Nile called the Rosetta. As soldiers were digging, they hit upon a large stone of black basalt, measuring 39" high, 24"wide, and 11" thick. It has three styles of writing inscribed on its surface, but may be part of a larger piece perhaps 5 or 6 feet high. No other pieces have yet been found. The commander of the unit sent the stone on to Alexandria.

Napoleon had brought with him many scientists from all branches, botanists, geologists, artists, etc, to explore and take notes on the culture and monuments of Egypt. He soon realized the significance of this stone, and had two artists come in to make rubbing copies. These were sent to scholars all over Europe.

Meanwhile, the French lost their military position to Britain, and the Rosetta Stone was sent to London, where it still resides in the British Museum. The Stone is a commemorative stela from an Egyptian temple. It was incised on one side with an inscription dated to Year 9 of the reign of Ptolemy V Epiphanes, in 196 BCE, a copy of a decree issued by a general council of priests recording the honors bestowed upon the king by the temples. While all three of the sections are damaged the hieroglyphs at the top were the most damaged.

The writing on the Stone is in Greek and Egyptian. After the Stone was transferred to the British, the Greek section was fully translated in 1802 by Rev Stephen Weston. The Egyptian is in both Hieroglyphic, part of which was missing on the Stone, and in Demotic writing. Demotic was the principal writing form at the time when the stone was carved, whereas hieroglyphics were used for formal inscription of documents and monuments, similar to our use today of Old English font instead of a more modern one where an impressive presentation is desired. Sylvestre de Sacy concentrated on the demotic section. He began with the Greek proper names and attempted to isolate their demotic versions and managed to successfully isolate the names for Ptolemy and Alexander, but could get no further.

A Swedish diplomat and student of de Sacy named Johan Akerblad made more progress. He identified the demotic proper names that corresponded in the Greek, among them, Arsinoe, Berenice and Aelos. He then built up a demotic alphabet of 29 letters, almost half of which were actually correct. He then demonstrated that the phonetic signs used to write the names were also used to spell ordinary words such as "temple," "love," "him," "his," "Egyptian," and "Greek," providing the first indication of the general phonetic character of demotic. He was also able to correlate these to their Coptic equivalents. Mistakenly, however, Akerblad then became convinced that the demotic was entirely phonetic or alphabetic, and could continue no further.

In 1814 fragments of a papyrus were submitted to Thomas Young for study. Young deduced that the demotic writing was not entirely alphabetic, as the Swede had incorrectly deduced twelve years before. He began with the demotic and within a few weeks isolated most of the graphic groups representing individual words and related them to their equivalents in the Greek. He also noticed that at least some of the demotic characters resembled the corresponding hieroglyphs and were adopted as verbal characters and mixed with letters of the alphabet.

Young drew on other material, such as the inscriptions newly published by the Napoleonic expedition in the volumes of Description de lEgypte, as well as some unpublished papyri, funeral rolls, recently brought from Egypt and loaned to him. By comparing parallel texts in the funerary documents, Young was able to confirm the relationship among the scripts by tracing the progression from the sacred character through the hieratic into the demotic. He could now establish the equivalence of many of the demotic and hieroglyphic signs, leading him to firmly identify the only personal name that occurs in the hieroglyphic section, that of King Ptolemy. He then found that groups of hieroglyphs with ovals, or, as the ovals became called then cartouches, around them, were royal names. Since that name was expressed phonetically in demotic, it most likely would be in hieroglyph as well.

By 1815 Young had developed a vocabulary of 86 words associating the Greek with the demotic. He recognized the names of Cleopatra, Berenice and Ptolemy in this fashion. Young published the results of his four years of research in 1819 in an article entitled "Egypt" for the Supplement to the fourth edition of the Britannica.

This breakthrough smoothed the way for Jean Francois Champollion, who had been also hard at work on decipherment. He corrected and enlarged Youngs list of hieroglyphs, and deciphered the names and titles of most of the Roman emperors who had ruled Egypt. He also formulated a system for understanding the Egyptian grammar and evolved a method of decipherment that was used in the field long after.

Champollion realized that he must isolate a pair of already known names having several hieroglyphs in common, so they could act as independent checks on each other and serve in additional identifications. By chance, another bilingual inscription fell into his hands. An obelisk and its base block, which had stood in the temple of Philae near Aswan, was brought back to England by a traveler. On the base was a Greek inscription mentioning two royal names, Ptolemy and Cleopatra, while the obelisk contained two different cartouches which were inferred to belong to those Kings. Sure enough the hieroglyphs in the Ptolemy cartouche matched the Ptolemy glyphs from the Rosetta Stone identified by Young. A lithograph was made of both the Greek and hieroglyphic names, and Champollion received a copy of this lithograph.

Champollion also received copies of reliefs and inscriptions from Egyptian temples, one from the temple of Abu Simbel in Nubia. This contained cartouches enclosing a name repeated in a variety of ways. Using what he had already learned, he identified the names of Rameses and Tutmosis. He wrote a letter to the Secretary of the French Academie Royale des Inscriptions, Baron Joseph Dacier, outlining this discovery. This Lettre a M. Dacier is regarded as the definitive document by which hieroglyphs could be translated. Champollion published his Precis du systeme hieroglyphique in 1824.

When Champollion died unexpectedly of a stroke in 1832, his brother put together all his notes, edited them and published these and many other subsequent discoveries as Grammaire and Dictionnaire.

Work continues on decipherment and translation as more texts are found and understanding of the ancient Egyptian culture is expanded and enriched. Next time you walk by a museum coffin richly painted with symbols, or if you are in Karnak some day amidst the glyphs along the pillars, stop a moment and look. A story was written there.


  • World of the Pharaohs by Christine Hobson
  • Reading the Past: Egyptian Hieroglyphics by W.V.Davies
  • The Experience of Ancient Egypt by Rosalie David
  • From Egyptian Hieroglyphs for Everyone by Joseph and Lenore Scott
  • The Tomb of Nefertari by John K. MacDonald